July 31, 2009

DEBBIE PURDY won a landmark appeal to the highest court in Britain yesterday in her battle to clarify the law on assisted suicide.

Five Law Lords unanimously backed her call for a policy statement from the Director of Public Prosecutions on the circumstances in which a person such as her husband might face prosecution for helping a loved one end their life abroad.

Ms Purdy (46), from Bradford, West Yorkshire, who has multiple sclerosis and is married to Cuban violinist Omar Puente, took her case to the House of Lords after the High Court and Court of Appeal held that it was for parliament, not the courts, to change the law.

The Law Lords agreed that changes were a matter for parliament, but upheld Ms Purdy’s argument that the DPP, Keir Starmer QC, should put in writing the factors that he regarded as relevant in deciding whether or not to prosecute.

Ms Purdy said in response to the decision: “I’m ecstatic. I am eagerly awaiting the DPP’s policy publication so that we can make an informed decision to make sure what we do does not risk prosecution. I feel like I have my life back.”

Earlier this month, an amendment to remove the threat of prosecution from those who go abroad to help terminally-ill patients die was defeated by peers in the House of Lords sitting not as a court but as the second chamber of parliament.

Giving judgment in Ms Purdy’s case yesterday, Lord Hope, sitting with Lords Phillips, Brown and Neuberger and Baroness Hale, said it was no part of the Law Lords’ function to decriminalise assisted suicide.

But the DPP should be required to set out an “offence-specific policy” identifying the facts and circumstances that he would take into account in deciding whether it was in the public interest to prosecute under the Suicide Act. Helping someone to commit suicide is punishable by up to 14 years imprisonment.

The judgment also came in the same month that the Royal College of Nursing declared it was dropping its opposition to assisted suicide and adopting a neutral stance.

And in a recent poll, 74 per cent of respondents said doctors should be allowed to help terminally-ill patients to end their lives. As many as 115 people from the UK have gone to the Swiss clinic Dignitas to die, but no-one has been prosecuted so far.

Lord Pannick QC, for Ms Purdy, had told the Law Lords that, unless the law was clarified, she might be forced to end her life earlier than she planned because her husband would be unable to help her, without risking prosecution, if she became totally dependent.

If the risk of prosecution was sufficiently low, she could wait until the very last minute before travelling with her husband’s assistance, he said. Ms Purdy was diagnosed with MS in 1995. – (PA)

This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times